In the Valley of Elah


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

In the Valley of Elah is a hand-wringing drama disguised as a police procedural. Tommy Lee Jones plays a retired military investigator whose son has disappeared shortly after returning from his own Army tour of duty in Iraq. Tommy Lee knows enough about his son to know that he's not the kind of guy to desert or go AWOL, so he becomes determined to get to the bottom of the situation. He drives to the base and stars asking questions, but gets very little co-operation from either the military or civilian authorities in the area.

It is only a matter of a day or so before he finds out that his son's body has been found in an open field, stabbed 42 times, burned beyond recognition, and devoured by wild animals. Although he is overwhelmed by grief, he is determined to follow the investigation through to the end. He gets no co-operation from the military, but catches a break when a diligent civilian cop (Charlize Theron) assumes control of the case when she determines that the murder happened away from military jurisdiction. Theron and Tommy Lee follow the case through a trail of lies and red herrings until they peel away every layer and expose the real story.

The film was written and directed by Paul Haggis, who has won two Oscars and has been nominated for three others. Haggis has been nominated for Oscars for three different films, as a director, as the producer of Crash, and as a writer, so this film comes with an impeccable pedigree, and it has several strengths:

1. Tommy Lee Jones turns in a poignant, grief-laden performance as the taciturn father. Although it's a one-note tune, he plays that tune effectively and he's on screen just about every minute. He earned his Oscar nomination as Best Actor.

2. The story is complex enough and interesting enough to sustain viewer interest over a long running time (124 minutes). The drama alone might weigh too heavily for such an extended length, but the film's mystery overlay keeps the action intriguing.

 It also has some glaring weaknesses:

1. It is consistently guilty of "piling on" tragedy after tragedy in an exploitative way. Don't you think a father's grief over his utterly mutilated son would be enough to build to emotional crescendo, especially when the father finds out that his son is very different from what he believed him to be? Not for this script. The author gives Tommy Lee another son who also died in military action, and forces poor ol' Tommy to deal with his doubly-grieving wife at the same time. She, of course, blames Tommy's military pride for having caused both of her sons to lose their lives.

Every character in the film has a similarly onerous tragedy. You get to the point where you long to meet a person whose life wasn't plotted out by the writers of General Hospital.

2. The film's presentation of America's involvement in Iraq is strident and one-dimensional, and follows the same path as the rest of the movie in layering tragedy on top of tragedy in a simplistic manner, without balance or perspective. It deals with generic situations that happen in every war and somehow leaps to the conclusion that those can be extrapolated to America's current situation. The ending of the film is just ridiculous and cheesy grandstanding, totally lacking in both artfulness and subtlety.

In both of those matters the film is so full of Henny-Penny dialogue ("the sky is falling") as to make Ron Paul seem calm and thoughtful.


* widescreen anamorphic

* features pending







2.5 James Berardinelli (of 4 stars)
4 Roger Ebert (of 4 stars)
4 BBC (of 5 stars)
71 Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)
65 (of 100)


7.7 IMDB summary (of 10)
B- Yahoo Movies


Box Office Mojo. It grossed only $6 million in about 1000 theaters. It grossed only $1.5 million in its opening weekend, and never cracked the top dozen at any time.



  • Frances Fisher shows her breasts clearly as a topless waitress.
  • Various strippers perform in the background of two strip club scenes.


Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


A simple-minded soap opera made watchable by a mystery overlay and effective performances from Charlize Theron and Tommy Lee Jones.